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Role of Enforcers Could Change

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The recent off-season deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak has led to a growing chorus of critics calling for the National Hockey League to ban fighting.

That chorus includes former enforcers like Dave Schultz, holder of the single season record for most PIMs with 472, and Chris Nilan, the Montreal Canadiens all-time penalty minutes leader, who believe the role of enforcer has changed since their playing days in the 1970s and 1980s.

Rather than play a regular shift as Schultz and Nilan once did, today’s enforcers usually play less than five minutes per game, and rarely see action in the post-season.  They often engage in “staged fights”, whereby they simply line up with the opposite team’s enforcer during a face-off, agree to drop the gloves, and go at it.

 

Some of today’s enforcers, including recently retired Georges Laraque, didn’t take kindly to that criticism. Laraque called those former hockey brawlers who call for a ban on fighting to be selfish hypocrites.

Despite the criticism, it’s doubtful the NHL will put an outright ban on fighting.

Sure, league commissioner Gary Bettman could do it immediately if he wished, but there’s a very good reason why he won’t: hockey fights remain popular amongst the majority of fans.

Hockey Night in Canada personality Don Cherry often catches flak when he defends fighting and enforcers, but he’s absolutely correct when he points out the excitement in the stands whenever a fight breaks out on the ice.

It would take overwhelming disapproval of fighting from hockey fans to bring about its elimination from the NHL product, as well as from every other level in the sport.

While there have been some complaints about “staged fights”, there’s no evidence of any mounting distaste amongst fans toward the on-ice fisticuffs.

Still, the NHL brain trust aren’t ignorant of the criticism being levied their way.

While there is no apparent connection between the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak and their respective roles, the fact the three were linked by their on-ice roles could bring about an investigation into the place of enforcers in the game.

It’s doubtful we’ll see the elimination of the type of player whose ability to fight enables them to assume the role of “team policeman”, ensuring opponents don’t take liberties against their more talented teammates.

What could change, however, is these players could become required to contribute more to their overall game than just chucking knuckles.

That was certainly the case of many of the NHL’s all-time penalty minute leaders, such as Dave “Tiger” Williams, Dale Hunter, Tie Domi, Marty McSorley, Bob Probert, Chris Nilan and Rick Tochett.
Yes, they could fight, but their overall game made them valuable to their respective teams.

Williams, the all-time penalty minute leader, had six forty-plus point seasons in his 14-year NHL career, including a career-best 35 goal, 62 point performance with Vancouver in 1980-81.

Hunter, who’s second overall, finished his NHL career with 1,020 points in 1,407 regular season games, along with 118 points in 182 playoff games.

Tocchet, who’s tenth overall, netted 440 goals and 995 points in 1,144 NHL games, had 112 points in 140 playoff games, won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 1992, and played for Team Canada in the 1987 Canada Cup.

McSorley blossomed into a capable defenseman, with four 30-plus point seasons, played on two Stanley Cup championship teams in Edmonton and finished his career with 359 points in 961 NHL games.

Probert had four seasons with 40-plus points, including a career-best 62-point performance in 1987-88, earning a berth in the NHL all-star game.

Domi and Nilan developed from straightforward enforcers early in their careers into “energy players” taking regular shifts on the checking lines and occasionally seeing time on the scoring lines.

In the wake of the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak came reports from enforcers, both present and of the recent past, of the considerable stress involved in their roles, such as mentally preparing for the next bout with a rival scrapper in every game.

They also noted the stress of expectation, that if they didn’t “go” when ordered by coaches, or if they started to falter in their roles, that they risked being replaced, banished to the minors, their NHL careers over.

Several also admitted to abuse of prescription painkillers and alcohol both to cope with the stress of their roles and the constant physical pain from fighting.

It’s possible the league could try to limit the number of fights and reduce the stress upon enforcers by shifting them toward more well-rounded roles, whereby their pugilistic abilities are secondary to their primary roles.

The role of today’s enforcers, combined with the increase in their size and strength, has also given rise to concern over the possibility of a player being killed from a punch in a hockey fight.

While that has not happened in NHL history, the possibility does exist, and while enforcers as a rule don’t wish to inflict serious injury upon their opponent, that doesn’t mean a death from a hockey fight couldn’t happen one day.

To remove the requirement of enforcers to be merely fighters only and insist they have the skills to compete in other aspects of the NHL game won’t entirely remove that possibility of a hockey death from fighting, but the league might gamble on it reducing that risk.

It remains to be seen, of course, what action the NHL will take, but the criticism toward enforcers and fighting has been around for some time prior to the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak. Their passing merely stoked it.

It would be best for the league to become proactive in conducting an detailed investigation into the roles of their enforcers, the effects it has on them during and after their careers, and what can best be done to remove the stress from their roles while still making them worthwhile NHL players.

At the very least, the league certainly must immediately take action regarding recent claims from former players of the abuse of prescription painkillers, and especially amongst their enforcers.

The NHL doesn’t have the best record in addressing troubling issues, but with this particular issue, now would be a good time to become proactive, rather than ignoring the problem and hoping it’ll just go away.

If the league is unwilling to eliminate the enforcer from its game, changing their role could be the next best thing.

 

Filed in: NHL Teams, NHL Talk, Lyle Richardson, | KK Hockey | Permalink
 

Comments

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Before I even start writing, I know it would be very unpopular with the NHLPA… but here is my suggestion:

Trim the game-day roster down to 3 lines, 3 pairs of D and 2 goalies… top 6 skilled players would get more ice time, your bottom 3 could be a mix of defensive specialists and energy players. To dress an enforcer would be a bigger decision for team management, taking up a more valuable roster spot.

At the moment with current roster sizes, losing one spot (and by losing I mean having an enforcer in the line up to play 5 mins a game while the coach hopes that having him out there won’t be a defensive liability since they aren’t out there to put pucks in the net or create scoring chances…) isn’t a big deal since most of the time a top player shifts down to double up on the 4th line anyway when the enforcer is glued to the bench in a tight game.

Don’t remove fighting, but make it part of a player’s game like it was Tocchet, Williams et al. Those types of fights are the ones that actually change the momentum and feel of a game.

Posted by James from Ottawa on 09/14/11 at 02:46 PM ET

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The “Hey, you wanna go?, Ya, let’s go!” type fights need to go and when that happens the goons will be gone too.  If a player can’t play, why keep him around?

My suggestion for the obviously staged fights is that the instigator gets a major, a misconduct, a game misconduct and a 3 game suspension for the first one of these, 5 games for the second, 10 for the third, and the rest of the season for the fourth.  The other party gets a major, a misconduct and a game misconduct.  That will certainly penalize those who yap all the time more, but hey, something needs to be done with these clowns.

Doc

Posted by DocF from Reidsville, NC on 09/14/11 at 03:00 PM ET

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A fight in the heat of the battle is one of the most exciting parts of the game. As much as I enjoy watching the big boys square off at a puck drop I think it is time for the NHL and NHLPA to get rid of staged fights. Also it is time to cut out the one dimmensional “Fighters”. I like the idea of reducing rosters to 3 lines but it would ultimately cut too many jobs in the NHL. My solution to that would be to create a rule that allows 20 players dressed for a game and would demand a minimum ice time for all players (except b/u goalies). This would force teams to only dress players that can contribute to the game. it would cut out one dimmensional players and create NHL jobs for some of the very skilled AHLers that otherwise lose jobs to the underskilled giants. I am not sure how to facilitate this rule but i think it is a realistic solution.

Posted by Chris from Regina on 09/14/11 at 03:11 PM ET

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That chorus includes…Chris Nilan

That’s an interesting way to look at it, considering that he specifically said he doesn’t want hockey out of the game:

“I’m not sayin’ take fightin’ out of hockey,” Nilan said. “I’m not sayin’ I want fighting out of hockey.”

All he said is that he doesn’t like the way that the role of the enforced has evolved (or devolved, I guess).

He also specifically said that he doesn’t believe there is any connection between Boogard’s, Rypien’s and Belak’s deaths.

Posted by James from Ottawa on 09/14/11 at 12:46 PM ET

Absolutely, positively ridiculous.  Since some teams have a full-time enforcer that plays 5 minutes per game, you want to eliminate three jobs from every team and penalize teams that have 23 hockey players on their rosters?

Yeah, let’s wear down the star players even faster by forcing them to play more minutes every game, so that they get injured more as a result of fatigue and have to retire sooner.

Great plan, I’m sure everyone will be on board with that.

Posted by Garth on 09/14/11 at 03:18 PM ET

Hank1974's avatar

If the only quality a player can bring to an NHL game is fighting, then they shouldn’t be in the game.

Do whatever it takes to get rid of the goon in hockey.
I’d have no problems if the top ‘goons’ were guys like Milan Lucic or Zdeno Chara.
These guys are tough but they can play. And because they have a regular shift, they can keep rats like Cooke accountable for their actions.

But guys like John Scott and Trevor Gillies are an embarrassment to the game and should be removed from it.

The PA would never go for it, but I often thought the easiest way to clean the game up in a lot of areas is to go with a much shorter roster. Instead of 18 skaters, how about 15 or 16.
That’ll leave less room for Rats and Goons. There’ll be more skaters and could also help provide more offense to the game - as well as depth to all teams.

Posted by Hank1974 on 09/14/11 at 03:19 PM ET

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My suggestion for the obviously staged fights is that the instigator gets a major, a misconduct, a game misconduct and a 3 game suspension for the first one of these, 5 games for the second, 10 for the third, and the rest of the season for the fourth.  The other party gets a major, a misconduct and a game misconduct.

I like the idea of giving stiff penalties for staged fights, but if they are staged then don’t you have to give both fighters the same penalty?

Posted by Garth on 09/14/11 at 03:20 PM ET

Lyle Richardson's avatar

Garth: here’s what he actually said:

“I’m not sayin’ take fightin’ out of hockey,” Nilan said. “I’m not sayin’ I want fighting out of hockey. What I am sayin’ is that (NHL commissioner Gary) Bettman can take it out if he likes ... that he might as well take it out because it’s not being used the way it once was. It’s so different now.”

He’s among the chorus criticizing the role of today’s enforcers, even going so far as to suggest Bettman can take it out of the game if he wants, that he might as well, because it’s not being used the way it once was.

Posted by Lyle Richardson on 09/14/11 at 03:24 PM ET

Hank1974's avatar

My suggestion for the obviously staged fights is that the instigator gets a major, a misconduct, a game misconduct and a 3 game suspension for the first one of these, 5 games for the second, 10 for the third, and the rest of the season for the fourth.  The other party gets a major, a misconduct and a game misconduct.  That will certainly penalize those who yap all the time more, but hey, something needs to be done with these clowns.

I like this idea too, but both guys get the same penalty.

I’ve never thought of it before but Spector hit the nail on the head when he stated how the role of the enforcer has changed.
Goons used to be able to get a regular shift. Gretzky had Semenko, Yzerman had Probie, Orr had O’Reilly, etc.

These guys could play. And it’s a lot easier to police a game if you’re actually playing in the game.

That’s why guys like Boogard weren’t effective. He’d never take a shift with Gaborik because it would basically short-hand the Rangers.

If they heavily penalize the players for staged fights, eventually you get rid of the goon. And that’ll mean an open roster spot for someone that can skate but take care of business; ala Lucic.

That’s why guys like Neely and Nolan were so valuable. They could score but still stand up for themselves and those around them. And people feared them too.

Posted by Hank1974 on 09/14/11 at 03:28 PM ET

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Saying they’re dissatisfied with the changing way of the role that they played is one thing, but saying that they are in favour of banning fighting is a bit disingenuous.

That’s like saying that a college student who wakes up hungover on Saturday morning and says “I’m never going to drink again” is in favour of prohibition.

Posted by Garth on 09/14/11 at 03:32 PM ET

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If fighting happens between two guys who are sparring at eachother through the natural course of the game, this is fine….heck, that’s hockey.  But the whole “stagged fighting” and “I have to protect Sydney” has to go!!

The easiest way the league and the NHLPA could agree to remove the “goon” would be to change the Collective Bargaining agreement to change a players status if they are hit with “x” amount of penalties for every “x” amount of minutes they play; a ratio of sorts. 

This way, if a guy plays an average of 4 minutes a game but has one penalty (I’m just creating a hypothetical) over the course of a season, by the end of the season if he has a one-way contract, it could be changed to a two-way contract.  Or instead of that, change his status from restricted free agent to unrestricted.  This would give teams chance to either put the player in the minors if they don’t perform or give the player the option to leave on the own and the team does not have to match thier salary. 

Given this scenario, coaches and GM’s would be loathe to hire a guy with this kind of ratio, as they would get nothing for him if he becomes unrestricted, or would not sign such a player to high salary contract if they were shuffling back and forth to the minors all the time.  Instead, they would look to put a younger player on the roster who may not play a lot, but could produce a little, learn a lot, and stay out of the box.

I think the NHLPA would go for this as you’re not taking away the total number of players on the roster, you’re just ensuring that the guys on the roster can meet thier obligations of being productive.

Posted by NYCGoalie from NYC on 09/14/11 at 03:49 PM ET

scotts0's avatar

Good points all around.  But what if golden boy instigates a staged fight?  Would he fall into the category of “not an enforcer” so the ref would merely give him a stern look and penalize the other guy for touching golden child?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AurlQGuZtA

Posted by scotts0 from New York on 09/14/11 at 03:59 PM ET

Hank1974's avatar

Good points all around.  But what if golden boy instigates a staged fight?  Would he fall into the category of “not an enforcer” so the ref would merely give him a stern look and penalize the other guy for touching golden child?

LOL.

Well, I imagine if this rule was put into place “Golden Boy” would concentrate on doing what he’s paid for; play hockey.

I’m not nearly as pro-fighting as I once was. And I’ll stand by it forever that there should be no fighting allowed in any form of amateur hockey.

But, if two guys go at it, and it’s for legit purposes (see any Cooke hit), it’s something that I could live with.
But all these goon fights are so bad. They’re not even entertaining.
It breaks the action, the fights are boring, and it doesn’t accomplish anything.

Posted by Hank1974 on 09/14/11 at 04:11 PM ET

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I thought Ken Holland said at one time, regarding the enforcer role, “If he can’t dress/take a regular shift during the playoffs, I don’t want him on the team”, paraphrasing of course (memory is shot…).

Sounds good to me…

Posted by Brian on 09/14/11 at 04:29 PM ET

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How about earning the right to fight? You must play at least 5 games and have averaged 10 minutes of ice time. If not, you are tossed for three games and the team dresses one less player. See how quickly teams stop dressing 3 minutes per game players and recalling a goon only for a specific game.

Posted by hockey1919 from mid-atlantic on 09/14/11 at 04:57 PM ET

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You must play at least 5 games and have averaged 10 minutes of ice time.

What if, in your first game, you, or a linemate, are hammered into the board from behind?  You can’t fight the guy who did that?

Posted by Garth on 09/14/11 at 06:32 PM ET

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Maybe they could try getting rid of the instigator penalty.

Goons are players that a team uses to send a message, provide a spark, police, entertain, etc…  The goon needs to also be able to lost for 17 minutes, or suspended without hurting the team.

Fights are staged to avoid instigator penalties.  Fighters can only fight other fighters now, or they will be assessed the instigator because obviously that’s their role.

The fighter used to be called the enforcer.  ie, If Crosby plays on a line with Laraque and Matt Cooke goes near him, Laraque comes in letting him know he’s watching.  If he hits Crosby, he drops the gloves and pummels him.  I don’t think Cooke plays nearly as reckless.

Players like Matt Cooke can hide behind the instigator penalty a la fake glove drop, turtling whatever to draw the penalty.

The instigator rule has changed the game for the worst…

Posted by Terry Hale from San Jose on 09/15/11 at 03:24 AM ET

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I agree with trimming the bench down, but only 3 lines is going to far, injuries, penalties and ejections could limit the bench so much that players might get injured. Reduce the bench by 1 player, 2 at the very most, this would mean the coach would have to juggle lines, use tv timeouts efectively to rest stars and limit fights.

Think about every team in the league, if the coach had to drop one guy from the lineup on any given night, who would it be? Many players would be in the minors pretty quick.

Posted by Drew from London on 09/15/11 at 01:31 PM ET

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What if, in your first game, you, or a linemate, are hammered into the board from behind?  You can’t fight the guy who did that?

Nope. You haven’t earned the “right” yet. I’m open to some way to allow a legit response, but I’m not bright enough to figure out a way to prevent guys from coming up for one game to cause havoc. A player in his first game doesn’t need to be the player retaliating for a linemate, with these rules in place, you know the “new” guys hands are tied and leave it to another hockey player.

It could be reviewable to see if the fight was instigated, but I no longer trust the NHL to make discretionary calls. The hard part would be taking the extra runs and hits that would accompany the first five games until you had your average number of minutes up. You might have supplemental discipline on a guy that runs a player in the five game grace period. Again the fail is the NHLs discretion comes into place.

Posted by hockey1919 from mid-atlantic on 09/15/11 at 07:22 PM ET

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Fights are staged to avoid instigator penalties.  Fighters can only fight other fighters now, or they will be assessed the instigator because obviously that’s their role.

This is a true statement.

Posted by hockey1919 from mid-atlantic on 09/15/11 at 07:25 PM ET

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Nope. You haven’t earned the “right” yet.

That’s completely stupid.

How about we don’t allow goals to count unless you’ve played at least 7 games in the Red Army on the second or fourth line?

Maybe the goal only counts if there’s a right-handed defenseman on the ice at them?

Posted by Garth on 09/16/11 at 02:25 PM ET

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Fighting belongs in hockey. Players who only see a handful of minutes per game and exist on the roster for the sole sake of fighting, not so much.

I certainly wouldn’t keep any player on my roster if his only job is to go out once a game and fight. I’d expect goals and assists out of all my non-goalie players. If I wanted any of them to enforce anything, it’d have to be supplementary to what real hockey skills they possess. Otherwise, you’re just taking a UFC fighter, putting him on skates and ordering him onto the ice - and that’s not what the NHL should be about.

Posted by Chris from MI, USA on 09/16/11 at 03:19 PM ET

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How about we don’t allow goals to count unless you’ve played at least 7 games

Now that’s an idiotic comparison, because goals are legal and fights are not. They are legislated so that it isn’t an automatic ejection, but they aren’t legal. The idea is to get rid of the goon. False equivalency is always a stupid argument.

Posted by hockey1919 from mid-atlantic on 09/16/11 at 05:14 PM ET

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

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